Hooves drummed off iron earth and two plumes of breath boiled away into frozen, faintly misty air. The horse and its rider were galloping for the heat through the little valley. It was mid-December and early in the morning. Rapidly, they passed a large tree next to which a rough track began, and then on the track ascended slightly towards the downs of the hills at the neck of the valley. Ahead, the road wound up the slope, snaking through a high wall about halfway up before continuing its climb. The horse slowed, the rider pulled the reins a little more sharply, and they stopped.
The rider threw back the hood of a heavy cloak and felt inside it for a small flask. Uncapping it, he took a drink, paused, looked about, and took another drink. Replacing the flask, his hand wandered to the other side of his belt and clasped the pommel of his sword for reassurance. He knew the valley well, knew it was unfrequented, that he had been through here a thousand times and loved its silence. It was just reassurance.
Whickering impatiently, the horse stamped a foot. With a sigh, the rider leaned backwards and checked for the thousandth time a pack tied securely to the saddle. In a decisive movement, he gripped the fingers of his right glove in his teeth and pulled his hand free to unsnap a flap on the back of his left gauntlet. A green glow showed hazy through condensing breath. He tapped three keys, reins running through his palm. Then he hit another key, snapped shut the flap, and pulled on the empty glove. The horse was dragging a fore foot against the ground in anticipation. Picking the reins back up, with a shout of encouragement aimed as much at himself as the horse, the rider snapped the reins and dug his heels in.
They took off up the track, gaining speed. As they neared the wall, which was broken with a plain stone archway, the rider realised he was holding his breath. He blew out with another shout as they thundered through the arch and vanished from the track.
On the other side of the wall, the frozen ferns shifted slightly in the breeze as something unseen seemed to pass by at speed.
Sat at her desk in a windowed alcove, Emma set down her drink and scratched just above her right elbow, underneath the short sleeve of a pale blue shirt, with a pen. Her eyes were fixed on the green glowing screen a few feet away, and she blew a little raspberry through pursed lips. She slouched to her left and swivelled in her chair, tapping the pen arrhythmically on the desk in irritation. Always the same, she thought. Outside the window, the dank tunnel was lit by the glow from the alcove window. She reached for the drink again, sipped a little of the bitter back fluid and inhaled through her nostrils appreciatively.
She sat forward. Something had finally happened on the green glowing screen. Swivelling to face a different monitor, emitting a softer, pale white and blue glow, Emma reached for the keyboard in front of it and tapped at the number pad, three times and then a decisive fourth. Outside the alcove, sat about ten metres in from the end of a tunnel, a cool light appeared. Emma snuffed a short, snorted laugh. Open sesame, she said, half aloud, making a mocking half-circle with her right hand as she stepped to the door.
In the white gleam of the mouth to the tunnel, Emma felt a chill that had her jump back inside the office to retrieve a dark blue fleece jacket. She was shrugging into it and struggling with the zip, looking down and carefully feeding it into the fastener, when the rat-tat…tat…tat of a slowing horse became audible. She looked up and smiled as she reached into her pocket for the round mints, catching the reins of the horse as it trotted to a steaming standstill next to her and her hand found its muzzle with the treats.
‘Bleak midwinter at your end as usual then? Hello Roz,’ she said to the horse. Glancing up at the rider, she noticed he still had his hood up. She frowned. ‘You’re not Mercurio,’ she stated flatly. The hood came down. Emma’s eyes narrowed. ‘Do we… know you?’